Review by Tessa Mouzourakis
Dutton Books, Penguin Random House, 2017
286 pages, hardcover, $26.45 CAD, 978-0-525-55536-0
Ages 14+, Grades 9-12
Young Adult, Contemporary Realism
You often try to understand your experience through a metaphor, Aza: It’s like a demon inside of you; you’ll call your consciousness a bus, or a prison cell, or a spiral, or a whirlpool… One of the challenges with pain—physical or psychic—is that we can really only approach it through metaphor. It can’t be represented the way a table or a body can. In some ways, pain is the opposite of language.
The ominous, ever-present and seemingly infinite spiral of thoughts that plague those struggling with illnesses like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression are represented by a broad orange corkscrew on the cover of John Green’s newest book, Turtles All the Way Down. It is an appropriate cover, as the YA megastar John Green attempts many metaphorical translations of obsessive thoughts in his compelling narrative of sixteen-year-old Aza Holmes, an Indianapolis teen living with anxiety and OCD.
Turtles All the Way Down begins mysteriously, as the disappearance of a millionaire accused of fraud and bribery—and a $100,000 reward for his return—inspires Aza and her best friend, Daisy, to track him down. While the mystery informs the inciting incident, it is soon forgotten, as Aza’s budding relationship with the millionaire’s son, Davis Pickett, and the intense antagonistic forces of her anxiety come to control the narrative and play catalyst to the character’s growth throughout the novel.
Turtles All the Way Down—while categorically John Green-esque in its ample use of flowery language, metaphors and existential musings—was, nonetheless, an evocative and effective portrait of anxiety and OCD. Green’s notorious existential musings don’t feel too out of place in the novel as they suit Aza’s anxious “big questions,” while his careful language and flowing prose do a great job conveying the oft convoluted aspects of anxiety that can be difficult to express. I also appreciated the way Green incorporated medical terms and themes throughout the novel, using Aza’s obsession with molecular biology and Clostridium Difficile infection (C-dif) to signify moments of anxiety and the severity of her thought patterns.
One thing I found particularly interesting about the book were Davis’ blog posts. The short passages not only provided a candid portrait of Davis’ perspective, unaffected by Aza’s point of view, but enriched the narrative through Green’s incorporation of quotes and beautiful prose. While there were many times where I heard the author’s voice more than his characters’, I still appreciated these moments of reflection. A particularly poignant of Davis’ posts writes
[T]onight, under the sky, [Aza] asked me, “why do all the [posts] about me have quotes from The Tempest? Is it because we’re shipwrecked?” Yes. Yes, it is because we’re shipwrecked.
Not only is Green’s portrait of these shipwrecked teens well-written, but it’s important, too. Turtles All the Way Down speaks to a prevalent issue in young adult life, and I appreciate how Green aims to address mental illness in a humanizing and empathetic light. However, I will offer a word of caution for any readers who struggle with anxiety or depression. Green paints some pretty grim and familiar pictures that I, personally, found a bit triggering, so this book may not be suitable for everyone.
That being said, Turtles All the Way Down is extremely relevant, and certainly a YA book worth reading.
Tessa Mouzourakis is an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia studying History and Creative Writing. As a massive book worm, Tessa aspires to be a published writer of poems and stories. In the summer, Tessa spends her time in Nashville, Tennessee, writing songs, seeing shows, and avoiding honky-tonks.